Our opinion: Secrecy comes at a high price

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The state of Vermont has more than 250 known exemptions restraining free access to public records — information that could and should be available to the public.

But how does that affect everyday Vermonters? A recent story by Vermont Public Radio's Henry Epp shows one way that secrecy is potentially costing the state's taxpayers millions of dollars.

As Epp reported, the state's Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, or VEGI, has authorized more than $10 million in payments to Keurig Pepper, formerly known as Keurig Green Mountain.

Here's the catch: Not only does the public not know exactly how much money the state has provided Keurig Pepper, or how it was spent, it is actively prohibited from knowing.

In March, Casey Mock, then the head of the Vermont Economic Progress Council, told VPR that a state law prevents him from disclosing how much VEGI gave to Keurig Pepper, or what the company did with the money. (That's 32 V.S.A. 3341 if you're scoring at home.)

"Information and materials submitted by a business concerning its income taxes and other confidential financial information shall not be subject to public disclosure under the State's public records law," the law says. But it also says the state Joint Fiscal Office, a standing committee of the Legislature, or the state auditor can have access — "provided, however, that the Joint Fiscal Office or its agent and the Auditor of Accounts shall not disclose, directly or indirectly, to any person any proprietary business information or any information that would identify a business except in accordance with a judicial order or as otherwise specifically provided by law."

That's not an old law that somehow stuck around. It was passed in 2015.

VPR reported that the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development considers the payments from the state to Keurig Pepper as tax returns, and they are therefore considered confidential.

Our apologies, but that's ridiculous. There is no compelling reason for the amount of money that the state's taxpayers gave a private entity to be considered confidential information, let alone treated as a tax return. It's their money and they deserve to know how it was spent.

Mock referred VPR to Keurig Pepper, which in turn issued a statement that read, in part, "The program has made it possible for Keurig Green Mountain to maintain a strong physical presence in Vermont, creating over 2000 new jobs and capital investment exceeding $450 million." But Keurig Pepper did not say whether state funding assured the creation of those jobs, or exactly how much money it received.

The board that oversees VEGI meets in public. But in 2007, when the company told the board that public funds were "critical" to its remaining in Vermont, that discussion appears to have taken place in executive session, VPR reported.

Undoubtedly, public investment helped the company grow. But how much? And when there was a downturn for the company, was it used to retain those jobs? VPR reported that since 2015, Keurig Pepper has laid off at least 455 workers in Vermont, including 35 employees in May, according to records from the state Department of Labor. We have no way of knowing whether the number of job losses would have been higher if not for the state's investment, or if it the number of job losses should have been lower.

As long as secrecy reigns, we can only assume the worst about where the money went and how it was used. Yes, that is cynical and perhaps unfair. But what else should Vermonters conclude given all this high secrecy? After all, if the state and Keurig Pepper had nothing to hide, they'd tell us everything — right?

This undue and unjust culture of secrecy must change. When a new Legislature convenes in January, revamping the state's public records laws to eliminate these loopholes and provide real accountability for taxpayers should be the first order of business. And you can help make that happen. Ask your friendly Legislative candidate over the next month: Why should the spending of any public dollars be shielded from public knowledge? And what do you going to do to address that if elected or re-elected?

In the meantime, we call upon state auditor Douglas R. Hoffer to recognize a unjust law when he sees one and immediately make public the amount of taxpayer money the state has given Keurig Pepper, and the manner in which the company used those funds.

Hoffer, or someone else with access to what should be public information, should do so because Article 6 of the Vermont Constitution says this: "That all power being originally inherent in and consequently derived from the people, therefore, all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants; and at all times, in a legal way, accountable to them."

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